February is observed as the Catholic Press Month- an observance which apparently goes back to at least 1950, if not earlier (some say, it began in 1931).The origins of this month can be traced to the United States and perhaps rightly so; the Catholic Church in the United States began publishing daily newspapers and regular periodicals several decades ago. The Catholic Press Association has over the years been a vibrant body and has articulated important positions in consonance with the Catholic faith.
The aims of the Catholic Press Month include highlighting the role of the Catholic Press in communicating the teachings and stand of the Catholic Church on crucial matters which affect society today; to uphold and communicate non-negotiable Catholic values like truth, justice, liberty, peace which are fundamental for the good of all; to provide a forum for all (particularly Catholics) to express their views/ opinions on other issues. There is another ‘marketing’ issue which remains upfront in this February month – which is to increase the subscriptions to the Catholic newspapers/ periodicals and thereby the readership. All of these are very laudable and needed to promote the Catholic Press today.
Unfortunately, very few in the Catholic Church in India today are actually aware that February is the Catholic Press Month. There could be a wide range of reasons for this lacunae but surely high up among them is the fact that the Indian Catholic Press- be it in the vernacular or in English, has in general, hardly played a defining or impacting role both within the Church or in wider society. True there are some outstanding Church/Catholic-owned weeklies, monthlies and other periodicals which have certainly made their mark regionally or nationally. Some of them have been consistent in taking a stand for truth and justice – and even risked putting their heads on the chopping block. These however are extremely few- and can easily be counted. Does then, the Indian Catholic Press play a prophetic role in the country today?
On December 4, 1963 Pope Paul VI solemnly promulgated Inter Mirifica – the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Media of Social Communications. In a reference to the Press the Decree stated, “First, a good press should be fostered. To instill a fully Christian spirit into readers, a truly Catholic press should be set up and encouraged. Such a press-whether immediately fostered and directed by ecclesiastical authorities or by Catholic laymen-should be edited with the clear purpose of forming, supporting and advancing public opinion in accord with natural law and Catholic teaching and precepts. It should disseminate and properly explain news concerning the life of the Church. Moreover, the faithful ought to be advised of the necessity both to spread and read the Catholic press to formulate Christian judgments for themselves on all events (#4)
Though written almost fifty-five years ago, ‘Inter Mirifica’ still serves as the key directional document for Catholic Communications. Already at that time, the scope of the document included all forms of existing media like the TV and the radio- and did not limit itself only to the press; today with the advent (and the onslaught) of social media, Church social communications would necessarily include that, as is evident in the recent messages for the World Day of Social Communications issued annually by the Holy Father.
Even before the turn of the century, the communication revolution seized India. The plethora of media has impacted the thought patterns and the lifestyle of the average Indian. In the poorest areas of the country, one can see village boys glued before an idiot box watching one of those films of fantasy and trying to escape in a world which is not their own. In an ordinary by-lane of Calcutta, one can still see the daily newspapers pasted on the notice board and a poor ordinary cycle-rickshaw driver (who has managed to become literate) desperately trying to scan the headlines of the day, hoping that there will be something positive for him in the news. In many places today, in our urban cities, a milkman or even a maid-servant can be contacted on their mobile. Almost everywhere we see people texting on their latest gizmo or plugged into their earphones listening to ‘god-knows-what’. The tickers are filled with ‘breaking stories’ all the time. The fact however, the ‘press’ has still not become obsolete. We still have hundreds of daily newspapers (in every possible language), tabloids, magazines and journals- that cater to every possible taste across the country today. The average citizen is literally plagued with information.
India continues to be a land of glaring contrasts. According to a recent report, just one percent of the country owns 73% of the wealth. The disparity between the rich and the poor grows bigger every day. Vast sections of the people- the farmers, the casual labourers continue to live on the fringes of society. The dalits, the tribals, women, children, the minorities and other vulnerable groups are not only marginalized but are consistently attacked. Corruption is completely mainstreamed as is seen in the recent cases of Nirav Modi and the son of Amit Shah. The ruling political dispensation is doing all they can, to change fundamental values enshrined in the Constitution like ‘secular’ and ‘socialism.’ Justice and equality have taken a back-seat in an environment where political patronage provides immunity and impunity to powerful vested interests. India has never had it so bad on so many different fronts.
The media is unquestionably regarded as the fourth pillar of democracy – provided it actualizes the role and responsibility entrusted to it. Unfortunately, most of the mainstream media in India seem to have abdicated their primary task. Be it the press or the electronic media, a fairly large section is today owned by the corporate sector; naturally they are obliged to toe the line of the money-bags, who in turn blindly root for the ruling political dispensation. Media succumbs to the pressures of the ‘market’ – like any other product they want to sell, mainly through revenue which comes from advertisements – both Government and private. So ‘commercialization’ plays a very important role in the way a headline or picture finds a place in print media. Then there are the undeniable facts of compromise and cooption – those who do not fall prey to gifts and privileges of the powerful are conveniently sidelined or even killed as in the case of Gauri Lankesh. The way some media foster the communal ‘Hindutva’ agenda is another major concern in India today.
That a major section of the Indian media is corporatized, commercialized, co-opted, compromised and communalized (the 5Cs) is without doubt. There is enough written on this especially on social media (fortunately the internet today has provided us with ‘online portals’ and the possibility of having personal blogs where fortunately committed journalists can still freely take a stand). The point is, in the wake of what is happening in the country today and the fact that there is much to be desired from secular mainstream media – can one expect the Indian Catholic press to play a prophetic role today?
To arrive at an answer it is necessary at first to have a look at the content of what the Catholic Press has been producing very specially after the path-breaking statement of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) “Called to be a Communicating Church” – which was the outcome of the CBCI General Body Meeting held in Trichur in January 2004. Whilst most of the Catholic media did highlight this statement – hardly any of our print media have actually followed up on the lofty ideals and pastoral plan of action which was envisaged. It would be a good idea to check of many of our Dioceses actually have a Communications Commission and if so, who are the members and if they have any role to play at all. It would be interesting also to check if Dioceses have a point person/spokesperson for communications. Is there any connect with the secular press (who also have several Catholic journalists). If the Catholic press in India was serious about its role then they should have doggedly followed the commitment of the Bishops to the people of India.
Another CBCI General Body meeting has just concluded in Bengaluru (February, 2 - 9, 2018) and a path-breaking statement from our Bishops very especially on the understanding of authentic nationalism and Constitutional secularism. Several of our Catholic Press has already reproduced this statement verbatim, in their recently published issues. But that is not enough. Will successive issues of their publications invite diverse opinions on the statement, very especially in the light of what is happening in the country today? This would imply taking a stand on some very sensitive issues. It is anyone’s guess as to how many of our Catholic journalists are willing to stick their necks out.
Then comes the point of truth and transparency (CBCI Statement refers to the latter). These are like two sides of a coin. Both are non-negotiable; one cannot be conveniently selective. If there is something wrong even within the Church, the Catholic Press has an obligation to pursue the truth impartially and objectively for the greater good. Pope Francis emphasizes this fact in his recent message for World Communications Day 2018, he says, “ In today’s fast-changing world of communications and digital systems, we are witnessing the spread of what has come to be known as “fake news”. This calls for reflection, which is why I have decided to return in this World Communications Day Message to the issue of truth, which was raised time and time again by my predecessors, beginning with Pope Paul VI , who’s 1972 Message took as its theme: “Social Communications at the Service of Truth”. In this way, I would like to contribute to our shared commitment to stemming the spread of fake news and to rediscovering the dignity of journalism and the personal responsibility of journalists to communicate the truth .” So many today (even Catholic journalists) become dispensers of “fake news” and really do not have the courage to be visible and vocal when it comes to matters of ‘truth’, many prefer like ostriches to bury their heads in the sand. The same can be said when it concerns matters related to justice, life, dignity, equity, freedom, non-violence and peace.
A prophet is one who announces the ‘good news’ but is fearless in denouncing all that is wrong in Church (remember how Jesus also denounced the Pharisees, the scribes of his time; Pope Francis does not fight shy of doing so too!) and in society. A prophet is never removed from the context and the concerns of the people; s/he does all s/he can to conscientise those who heap heavy burdens on others; above all s/he is resolute in her/his commitment whatever the consequences. It is high time that the Indian Catholic Press awakes to and plays this prophetic role!
(The writer is a human rights activist. He is currently based in Lebanon, engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Middle East on advocacy and communications. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Published on 19th February 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 08)